Friday, June 5, 2009


#156, Lexington, KY

Last year, while on tour with my band Balthrop, Alabama and Dawn Landes, we stopped over in Lexington, Kentucky to play at a great dive bar called The Dame. Two nights after we played, they began to knock buildings down. I asked Alex Brooks, a friend and letterpress artist (whose mad skillz can be seen on the latest Balthrop tour posters - scroll down: it's the one with the hands), who lives in Lexington, to write about what happened. What follows after the jump is his take: part history, part eulogy of this lost establishment. The photos are mine. Lastly, take a peek at some of Alex's work at his site, Press 817. Alex has threatened to board an Ashland, KY - Penn Station train with 250 lbs of type metal so NYC can gain a letterpress artist and I can buy him some bourbon as thanks. Let's hope this is the case.

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The ‘Dame Block’ was a collection of bars / dives / venues that grew up organically over the past ten years or so. The Dame was the only large music venue in town. Mia’s was the lesbian bar & restaurant. And Buster’s was the punk dive pool hall, which was also sort of home to us. This block brought together all the different factions of young & exciting culture in Lexington, a home for young artists and musicians who aren’t welcomed in the traditional art circles which all have a slightly antebellum feel. Suddenly, the Webb brothers announced that they had secretly bought the entire block and were planning on demolishing everything to build a 40 story hotel & luxury condo development. It stunk of good old boy politics and back room deals. The burgeoning community that lives, works & plays downtown reacted overwhelmingly against this development, as out of scale, as crushing our nascent cultural center, and as destroying an entire block of historical buildings. There were protests, we organized a non-for-profit to fight the development, finally just begging to be heard, begging for compromise. “We need culture,’ we said, “not luxury condos.” The Webbs made a show of listening, only to do exactly as planned. As a further show of disrespect & arrogance they started knocking down buildings during our 4th of July parade, when all of Lexington gathers around that block. A year later we’re left with a ‘crater of mud’ in the center of downtown, with no signs of construction. I could rant for pages.

This alley, that I am so ceremoniously pissing in, will be a pile of rubble in a week, and then a mudpit, and then, supposedly, a 40 story luxury condo tower. They don’t get it, and I should have said so, should have told them that me pissing there was like pouring out a 40 for the dead, the only place in town I’d ever felt comfortable, slumped in a ratty booth, punk rock and pool tables and regular people, not rich Irishmen at McCarthy’s or Harvey’s, which used to be the Melodian, which again was our place, but now is some swank ass polo shirt frat boy bullshit. And now I’m pissing on it because I won’t be welcome within five hundred feet of this luxury condo development whose “inviting street level businesses” will consist of a Starbucks, a Chili’s, some stuffy men’s clothing place, and a bar just like the other five within a block which all make you feel like your guts rotting out from the inside, the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. I don’t fit in there. And for once I did fit in here, and it’s all shit now, so I’m pissing on it. The alley dirt turning to mud.

I should have said all this to the coppers, the fat one just stood there, quizzical, waiting for me to say something, their flashlight lighting up my face in the narrow brick alley. Instead I looked at the tall skinny one and burped.

The skinny one says, “We’re tryin’ to keep this part a’ town nice, and we can’t have people doin’ this sort of thing in the alley.” Which is ironic. It is so ironic that even in my stupor the irony is concrete, I can feel the grit of it.

Finally they’re letting me go. And the skinny one saying, “Don’t do this again,” I swear he says this without a drip of irony. I drift around the corner and rejoin the Kentucky hipsters outside, drinking brazenly on the sidewalk, packed with bodies and spilling out into the street. Another beer. Some of Burch’s bourbon flask. Someone has a 48 case of PBR in their messenger bag because the keg’s run out inside. My phone vibrates.

It’s a text message from her. “I’m in front of The Dame if you want to talk.”

She was standing there, lit up by the street, alone in the thronging crowd. The two of us, surrounded in the middle of the sidewalk, outside the double doors of The Dame. I don’t remember what I was thinking, only that I wanted her to take a walk with me, and she wouldn’t go. The car headlights streamed by one after another. The two of us, standing there, staring at each other, saying nothing. --Alex Brooks


Adam said...

What an excellent, but sad tale. I can feel the anger from here.

Bama said...

Wow. I can't believe we there in the midst of all that. Now I feel like I was a part of that block. F the man. Come to new york alex!

Michael Arthur said...

That was really sad and wonderful. I'm glad we got to spend some time there before it crumbled in the sunset.

alex brooks said...

thanks ya'll. onward & upward. hopefully i'll see you in nyc soon

Robt P said...

Not that this isn't a sad tale, but when was the block 'secretly' purchased? Recently, or 10+ years ago?

Because land-banking = urban blight = potential for artists = (misplaced) sense of ownership/entitlement.

Transience is in the nature of the beast.

alex brooks said...

robt p -
yes, the Rosenburg family owned half of the block for many years, and they unwittingly subsidized local culture through their slum-lord neglect, but the rest of the block was purchased, at outrageous prices, within the year.

It was secret because the developers purposely kept their plans secret. Instead of inviting community support, they planned a development that would hurt the community most directly affected.

The (misplaced or not) sense of ownership comes from actually living in the area in question, which the Webbs do not (and neither do you?). Our community in no way tried to stop development, we only wanted development to be in scale with our community and in line with our cultural values.

And you have to understand, we're not talking about soho or williamsburg, where creative people can just move down the street to red hook. This is lexington, and we have only one downtown. Yes another scene will grow, but it will take years, and I don't have that kind of time. The city spends millions of dollars trying to figure out how to make the city hip, and retain college graduates from UK. Well, everyone tells them we need street culture, art, and a sense of community ownership. Well, that was the block they just bulldozed. Then they spent thousands of dollars to send city leaders to Madison to figure out how that city got to be so cool.

We don't have room for transience here. I own a home here and I am an artist. Transience would be moving to another city. You have to live here to understand the complex dynamic. And until you do, respectfully, shut the fuck up.

Therese Cox said...

The debate of ideas makes me happy, but personal attacks are not welcome on this site.

Please help me keep this a safe space for everyone. Thanks.

Julie said...